The quaint town of Kurama
The Kurama Fire Festival, or Kurama-no-Hi Matsuri, is held every year on 22 October and my hubby and I were lucky enough to be in Kyoto when the festival was on (the Jidai Matsuri festival is also held on the same day in Kyoto city). We followed the hordes of locals and tourists and made the train trek up to Kurama, a picturesque rural town located high up in the northern mountains and approximately 45 minutes away from Kyoto.
The famous Buddhist temple Kurama-dera stands on the mountain slope above the town. A meandering pathway leads visitors through the dense forest up to the temple and it is a popular journey for pilgrims. You can also opt to take the funicular instead, which takes you halfway up the mountain. It was one of the most scenic walks that I experienced while in Japan, akin to walking through an enchanted forest and an unexpected surprise.
Kurama is also famous for its onsen, which is the most easily accessible hot springs from Kyoto. Here, you can enjoy the opportunity to bathe in an open-air bath, while taking in the serenity of the nature and the brilliance of the autumn colours around you (if there during the Fire Festival). #bliss
The Kurama Fire Festival: one of the most eccentric annual Japanese festivals
The Kurama Fire Festival is an annual Japanese festival that re-enacts the torch parade that enabled the passage of the deities at the Yuki-jinja Shrine.
Starting at 6 pm, bonfires (kagaribi) are lit in front of the town’s traditional wooden houses. Pine torches (taimatsu), varying in size, are then lit and paraded through the streets by the locals, who are dressed in traditional costume. The parade is carried out in procession style; the young children carry smaller torches at the beginning of the evening, followed by the adults who hold larger and heavier torches – some torches weighing over 80 kilograms and requiring several men to carry them.
At 8 pm, locals gather and pay their respects at Yuki Shrine; and from there, two portable shrines are then paraded through the town with the festival ending just after midnight.
Unsurprisingly, everything was well organised in true Japanese fashion. The streets were set up so that spectators had to keep walking around in a loop, basically to allow the thousands of people who had made the trip to Kurama an opportunity to see the fire action. Be aware that there will be times when you won’t see much at all.
It was an incredible experience hearing the loud crackle of the fire and seeing the night sky illuminated. The town appeared to be ablaze in flames as the local villagers paraded through the streets of the town (bare bottoms for the adult men! I wasn’t looking, I promise) carrying the large burning pine torches, with cries of ‘saireiya, sairyo!’ announcing the arrival of the Japanese festival.
If heading up to Kurama for the Fire Festival, my best piece of advice would be to go up as early as possible to beat the crowds on the train. It also allows you time to hike through the forest up to the Kurama-dera temple and to explore the village. Make sure to eat dinner before the festival starts or to stock up on some snacks, as you may not be able to grab something to eat once the festivities begin in the evening.
There is a designated path for visitors to follow to allow everyone the opportunity to see the action. Don’t worry if you don’t take the perfect photos the first time around, the festivities continue for quite a while and you’ll be seeing the fire torches again on multiple occasions. And while on the topic of photos: switch your camera to night mode as lighting, aside from the torch flames, is minimal.
Bear in mind that there will be a rush at the end of the night to catch the train back to Kyoto, so plan accordingly. We chose to leave soon after the men came out with their lit torches in order to beat the manic rush.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Kyoto at this time, make sure to head to this Japanese festival. It’s an incredibly unique experience and being so close to Kyoto, there’s no excuse not to go!